Bryan Caplan  

Ron Paul's Revolution

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Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired is the latest book by historian and journalist Brian Doherty.  Like his magisterial Radicals for Capitalism, Ron Paul's Revolution is first and foremost an oral history.  Doherty lays out all the main facts,  writes engagingly, and has a great sense of humor.  But his book stands out because he interweaves the public record with hundreds of interviews.  Doherty picks the brains of insiders, associates, critics, and Paul followers of every description.  And that's a lot of descriptions.  Doherty affectionately calls them the "usual Paul fan motley":
[C]oncerned veterans, pierced anarchists, conservative Christian moms, real estate brokers and homeschoolers and weapons enthusiasts and peace hippies.
Even now, it's tempting to dismiss Paul for his lack of electoral success.  But what's amazing is that how far Paul got with minimal effort to pander to the median voter.  He preaches peace, civil liberties, and drug legalization to Republicans - and actually makes headway:
...Ron Paul's biggest problem is his foreign policy - even though in another sense Ron Paul's biggest attraction is his foreign policy.

Both statements are very likely true.  Pretty universally, when I ask someone in the amateur or professional business of selling Ron Paul to potential voters, What's the biggest stumbling block they run into? the answer is: his foreign policy.

That was made abundantly clear at that moment in May 2007, the dustup with Guiliani, that launched the revolution in earnest. Paul's foreign policy puts him outside the normal realms of not just his party, but any party.  He's the only politician willing to judge America's foreign policy adventures by the same standard we apply to other countries' foreign policy adventures...

He's aware, he has to be, that his foreign policy stand is his hardest sell with the modal GOP primary voter. So he frequently reminds his audiences that a humble foreign policy is a political winner - for candidates.
Paul even has a strange tendency to downplay his libertarian deviations on immigration and abortion for the Republican audiences most likely to appreciate them.

If you're just looking for a great history of the Ron Paul movement, this is the book for you.  But Doherty's narrative also indirectly raises the bigger - and, to my mind, more interesting - questions. 

For starters, what on earth makes Paul so persuasive to so many people?  Though I usually agree with Paul's conclusions, his speeches strike me as rambling, even evasive.  But in terms of measurable results, Paul is a master of rhetoric.  His words inspire the apathetic and even convince the hostile.  You might think that Paul's followers fail to grasp what he's saying, but Doherty's first-hand account reveals extremely high issue awareness.

Perhaps the best story behind Paul's success is that it's the bandwagon effect in action.  Ron Paul made himself focal in 2007 by sticking to his guns in the Republican debates.  This didn't just attract legions of the politically homeless; it also gave the politically homeless a home of their own.  The Paul movement shows that people who don't fit in still want to fit in.  Indeed, they crave belonging more than all the normal people who take belonging for granted.

Will Paul's legacy be any more lasting than, say, H. Ross Perot's?  Doherty's convinced that it will be.  I'm still unsure, but Doherty's definitely convinced me that practical politics is more mysterious than social scientists care to admit.



COMMENTS (14 to date)
Joe Cushing writes:

Although he often jumps around and makes incomplete points, people who understand freedom know what he is trying to say when he doesn't finish a thought. Also, fans will watch him on several videos and he always says the same few things. Eventually he gets his point out. I think one of he greatest assets is his voting record. People who voted for George Bush because he campaigned for smaller government and no nation building have no trust for any politician except Ron Paul. He is the only one who votes the way he talks.

dullgeek writes:

In the grocery cart that is Ron Paul, I am mostly pleased with the contents. But I find the deviation on immigration to be quite distracting. I don't understand the pro-market, pro-freedom rhetoric alongside the anti-immigration stance.

As far as his deviation on abortion, what about the libertarian pro-life case (e.g. libertarians for life)? They argue that pro-life is libertarian. Where it's hard for me to see anti-immigration as pro-libertarian, it seems plausible to me that pro-life is pro-libertarian.

Jeff writes:

Perhaps his rambling, "jump from one point to the next without actually finishing any of them" pattern of speaking is endearing in an everyman sort of way. People watch and think "that's no worse than I'd do if people were hammering me with questions about public policy and economics all the time and expecting me to answer them off the cuff."

Also, I think it's pretty clear that part of his appeal is his willingness to stake out unpopular positions lends him an air of authenticity or reputation for earnestness that other politicians don't get. The Christian and pro-life right developed a mild infatuation with Rick Santorum after he came out against contraception in the Republican primaries earlier this year. He was willing to say something that the median voter would have found quite distasteful, and that gave his bloviating a measure of legitimacy to non-median voters. Paul's harping on the Fed, for example, has the same effect: median voters don't know or care about what role the Fed plays in the economy, and everyone basically knows this, so the fact that he keeps talking about it leads people to believe he really must care about the issue, and he's not just telling people what they want to hear (which is a perfectly reasonable conclusion by the way). Otherwise, why would he keep harping on it?

There is no "libertarian" position on abortion since there is nothing internal to libertarianism that can help us know when life begins (assuming that all humans have a right to life and that the state should secure that right).

For more, see http://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/tensions-within-libertarianism-part-i-libertarians-and-abortion/

John V writes:

Ron Paul's general platform can be a winner. Ron Paul, however, is not...in a political sense. I like Ron Paul but I also tend to agree with him more than I do with most any other politician because I'm a libertarian. So I tend to overlook his quirkiness and rambling and general not-made-for-TV look.

In order to appeal to the conformist political in-crowd of "polite society" occupied the center right and center left, it will take...sadly...something Paul is not: A skilled politician.

You envelope his platform around an astute and savvy political type like Bill Clinton and the appeal broadens immensely. But in a persona like Paul's, it remains on fringes appealing only to outliers, rebels and the already-persuaded.

As much as people can say they hate politics and politicians, they will always vote for them over the folksy, genuine-sounding normal guy. And people, in general, want to feel like they are voting for a guy who has enough support from others to win. People tune out the guy polling in low digits. Sheep.

Is Rand Paul that guy to make the platform more marketable? I don't know. I'm sure he'll try soon.

BZ writes:

As for permanent effects -- think at the margin. As a 2007 supporter I'm spending my fourth year in the LP. By far the greatest cause of new visitors to our meetings is the ideas of Dr. Paul. I imagine that will slow down within the next year, though some of his current followers will remain permanently involved in politics, as I have.

Collin writes:

Bryan,

1) I am on the fence on how the future 2020 party realignments will occur and how the libertarian movement will fit into the mix. The US population is right center on economics but left center on social issues. This fits up the libertarian alley but they are going to need to face breaking away from the Republican base. For example, a libertarian should be shouting about how a prescription for the birth control pill covered by insurance mandate is based on the original sin that it is sold behind the counter. (Increasing the cost and requiring a worthless doctor visit.) Only David commented on this.

2) Dr. Paul is the last living President candidate of Charles Murray's 1960 America where the local community did a lot more to support their population. Back then a 21 white male after a 2 year stint in the Army (signaling for 1960), would get a (union) career at the local factory, get married with children and attend the local church. Charity was more effective on the local level and Ron Paul was delivering babies with every once awhile doing a charity service for the worthy poor. I am sure Gary Johnson or Rand Paul can tap into this for growth of the movement.

3) I think libertarians need to focus on the original sin of big government comes from big military and wars instead of the Fed, immigration, drug policy and regulations. That would better win a lot left coast Democrats and young vote.

CR

Steve Sailer writes:

Who doesn't like Ron Paul's foreign policy?

mr. commenter guy writes:
For starters, what on earth makes Paul so persuasive to so many people?

Sincerity. People think he seems like he's basically a nice guy, he is well intentioned, and he means what he says (even if we don't agree with everything he says). Even people who strongly disagree with almost all his politics often admire him for those qualities. I don't know whether he's a great shining example of those qualities, but a lot of people believe that he is.

Do Brian--and potential readers--a favor and cross-post this review on the book's nearly bare Amazon page. (Tyler Cowen did this for my book The Substance of Style, and his review is still one of the page's more prominent and substantial ones.)

Tom writes:

I second what Virginia said. That bare amazon page doesn't inspire confidence, despite the quality I assume in Mr. Doherty's work.

----
Personally, I was converted the night of the dust up with Guiliani. I was a vaguely republican 21 year old with with a "south park" sense of humor and values. I tried to prove Ron wrong on the concept of blowback, and eventually had to concede he was right. That set a brushfire in my mind where I was constantly researching economics and political philosophy. I guess it boiled down to being controversial and stimulating at a time when I was open to change.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

I'd like to echo what a few have said so far. I have some love for Ron Paul thanks to our agreement on certain Libertarian issues. Still, I think his opposition to fiat money is silly. At the end of the day though, I'm more likely to vote for Ron Paul over another candidate, even if I agree/disagree with both equally because I feel certain that Ron Paul believes what he says and genuinely thinks he is doing the right thing.

I can't stand the flip-flopping and broken promises that go on. I don't know what Romney believes. Obama conveniently 'forgot' about half his agenda because he knows it won't pass and because the polls are bad. And here's Ron Paul who first introduced his bill to abolish the FED in 1999(!!!), a year when the US had almost 5% GDP growth. He's introduced the same bill nearly every year since. Is there any way to construe that as politically expedient, poll-watching, or flip-flopping???

Mike writes:

"it's tempting to dismiss Paul for his lack of electoral success."
>> Did you miss his multi-state delegate victories that have the RNC so threatened that they are literally breaking their own rules to disenfranchise or delegitimize those victories?

"But what's amazing is that how far Paul got with minimal effort to pander to the median voter."
>> How exactly does Paul pander when he goes on stage in front of ultra conservative audiences in Republican debates and talks about the fallacy of drug laws and our misguided foreign policy that even has him critizing, rightly, that Obama and Dems are way too hawkish?

"You might think that Paul's followers fail to grasp what he's saying,"
>> I'd put up a Paul supporter against a Romney or Obama supporter any day of the week and twice on Sunday and bet they would have a better "grasp" on what their candidate of choice is saying as opposed to the other two pandering pols.


"Perhaps the best story behind Paul's success is that it's the bandwagon effect in action."
>> That's the "best story" behind this success? It couldn't be exposing the hypocrisy of both political party establishments as well as the marginalization and dismissal arising out of elite media sources who have an irritating and dangerous tendency to protect, rather than hold accountable, the most powerful political factions? Or how about exposing the clandestine govt granted monopoly of the Federal Reserve and its effect on the markets and economy at large? Or inspiring those to read the works of the great historians, economists, and philosophers? And furthermore directly inspiring individuals to become politically engaged to the point where many are running for political office and winning local elections and party committee positions? Or how bemused those in the media and political circles have become that someone can have equal appeal to those from the furthest right politically as well as the furthest left?


"Will Paul's legacy be any more lasting than, say, H. Ross Perot's? Doherty's convinced that it will be. I'm still unsure,"
>> It seems someone would willing to take you up on that bet: http://consultingbyrpm.com/blog/2012/05/betting-bryan-on-ron-paul-vs.-ross-perot.html

Annoyed writes:

Please excuse me going a little off-topic here,

Paul even has a strange tendency to downplay his libertarian deviations on [...] abortion

Bryan, please explain on what libertarian principle you rest the assertion that an individual's rights begin only after he has passed through a vagina or transported via Cesarean section. Until then, please stop taking as granted that laws protecting said individual's rights are non-libertarian.

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